Some facts about Migration Agents you may or may not know:
Each registered Migration Agent gets issued a 7 digit MARN Number. If your agents MARN has only 6 digits, the first one is probably a '0'
You can check the Migration Agents Register whether a particular agent is registered, sanctioned or no longer registered:https://www.mara.gov.au/search-the-register-of-migration-agents/
The first two digits of a MARN give the year of initial registration. i.e. Agent 0511111 has many years more experience than agent 1611111
Migration Agents are not necessarily lawyers. Migration agents specialise in migration law only. However, lawyers too need to register with the MARA if they want to practise as Migration Agents, as not every lawyer has automatically expertise in migration law
Migration Agents are liable for the advice they provide, regardless whether they are paid or not. For this reason a lot of agents will refuse to answer 'quick questions' over the phone as there is such a high risk of providing incorrect advice based on false or incomplete information
Migration Agents are not permitted to guarantee you a visa outcome. If an Agent guarantees you a visa, you should approach with great care – because they're actually breaking Australian law
What a Migration Agent can and cannot do for you
Australian immigration law is ever changing and ridiculously complex. A Migration Agent is dealing with immigration legislation every day. They are informed about small changes that can make a big difference to your application and they have access to information not readily available to the public, such as the procedures advice manual used by Immigration Officials.
BUT, a Migration Agent cannot help you to get a visa if you don't meet the requirements. They cannot fast track your application through the system. The only way a Migration Agent can speed up your applications is by submitting it complete with all required documents and correctly addressing all visa criteria making it easier for your case officer to assess your application.
There is no requirement to use the service of a Migration Agent. Just like many people don't use tax agents to complete their tax return, you may just as well submit your own visa application to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Whether or not you should use a Migration Agent is a different question alltogether and depends on your personal situation. It'll depend on how complex your case is, how well you speak English and whether you have the time to make 'migrating-to-Australia' your favourite past time for a while. If you don't have the time to read your way through endless legislation and requirements, you probably better hire a professional agent to assist you.
Bear also in mind, that Immigrations visa application fees are non refundable if you're unsuccessful. If you apply for a skilled visa and have family the visa application fee could easily be about A$ 7000 and if your application is refused you won't get a refund. Plus not all refusals are reviewable. Offshore applicants with no sponsorship involved, are generally not eligible to apply for a merit review if their application fails, so if that happens, all you can do is to 'suck it up' and submit a completely new application, paying Immigration's fees a second time.
How to choose an Agent
OMARA registered or not?
Make sure your agent is registered with the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (MARA). It cannot be said often enough so I'm repeating it as well. Immigration law is a very complex area of law, so to protect consumers from shonky operators the Australian Government has made unregistered practice a criminal offence.
As a result Migration Agents in Australia are subject to scrutiny of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA). In order to register Migration Agents have to hold the necessary qualifications. Registration must be renewed every 12 months and to re-register Migration Agents need to have undertaken sufficient and approved training in the past 12 months. They must hold insurance to protect clients from financial losses in case they make a mistake and they must meet strict requirements when handling clients money.
None of the above applies to overseas agents, which are completely unregulated. Virtually anyone can put up a sign and call themselves Migration Agent. Needless to say that no protection mechanisms are in place in that case. Don't get fooled by a pretty website or a MARN Number. There have been cases of people who made up a number on their website. So always double check your agent is registered with the OMARA by checking their 6-digit MARN Number against the online OMARA register: https://www.mara.gov.au/search-the-register-of-migration-agents/
It's not really important where your agents is based, as long as they're registered (see above). These days most interaction with the Department is electronic anyway. So it doesn't really matter any more where your agent is based. I'm based in Adelaide, yet most of my clients are still overseas. Many I only meet online, and it has never caused any problems.
In most cases you'll first book a consultation with your agent. Initial consultations are really important. It's your chance to get to know each other and see if you can work together. Your agent will use this consultation to determine whether you're eligible for a visa, which visa and whether there are any potential issues to be expected in the application process.
Most agents will charge a small fee for a consultation, although some offer initial consultations for free. If you chose an agent who offers free consultation it's worth it to bear a few things in mind:
Often newly registered migration agents who lack experience offer free consultations to find new clients. The first two digits in a MARN gives the year of initial registration.
A well done consultation will take your agent at least a couple of hours in preparation, discussion and a written follow up. Agents offering this service for free could either cut corners or rely on you entering a contract later. Either way, you may well not get a real consultation but a 'sales talk'.
If an agent doesn't charge for consultations, they will make their profit solely from people signing up for full visa assistance. While there is nothing wrong with that, it's good to have an idea of your agents fees beforehand. If your agent is offering a free consultation, but charges high fees later, you're probably not only paying for your own consultation, but also for the consultation of several others who haven't entered a contract.
If you chose to use an Agent and enter an agreement with them, make sure you understand their fee structure. Are they operating on a fixed fee basis, or are they charging an hourly rate. If they charge an hourly rate, what is the hourly rate and are they charging full hours only? If they're operating on a fixed fee basis what is included in the fixed fee and how are potential additional fees billed?
Most agents will ask you to put down a deposit when they start working on your case. Don't be alarmed, this is quite normal procedure, especially if you're not based in Australia. Many agencies adopt this practise when dealing with overseas clients for security reasons. Your money will be deposited in a separate bank account, or a trust account and gradually withdrawn as work on your case progresses. Up to that point your money can be refunded if your agreement is prematurely terminated for any reason.